Dyslexia Assessment

Definition of dyslexia.
Dyslexia occurs when there is a significant disparity between a student's overall underlying verbal/cognitive ability and his/her (but usually his) literacy skills, despite considerable appropriate teaching of a suitably motivated student.
I have met many bright students who have not been able to develop appropriate literacy skills despite a tremendous struggle on the part of students, parents and teachers. (I have also met many less able students whose literacy skills were equally poor but in reality they were "maximizing their potential" and were to be congratulated on such achievement.)

Literacy Assessment
While "dyslexia" is a useful shorthand term, I find the phrase "specific literacy difficulties" more helpful as it instantly flags up a more precise description by acknowledging the possibility of more than one area of weakness.
Some bright students with dyslexia can manage a survival level of reading (Basic Reading) and spelling (Spelling) but their understanding of what they have read (Reading Comprehension) is often woefully below their intellectual capacity. Consequently, any assessment of a literacy difficulty should consider all three areas mentioned above.

Additionally, for some students, the speed of reading (Reading Speed) and the speed of writing (Writing Speed) can be an issue and needs to be measured. This is done in the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test Second UK Edition (WIAT-II UK) using a single word reading test as required by examination boards and the Detailed Assessment of Speed of Handwriting (DASH).

Psychometric Assessment
In the same way that I consider "dyslexia" to be a non specific umbrella term, I find the use of unqualified intelligence quotient figures (IQs) to be equally unhelpful. IQ figures are gained by averaging out scores relating to levels of underlying abilities.  In the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children V-uk (WISC V-uk published in December 2016) 10 core  subtests are administered.  (There are 5 further optional subtests that can be administered if required.)  The subtests are divided into Verbal Comprehension, Visual Spatial, Fluid Reasoning, and Working Memory and Processing Speed.  Sometimes, the test scores can then be averaged out to give IQ figures in the five respective areas.  In turn,  these five figures can be combined to provide a full scale, overall IQ.  When the variance between scores is small, I believe this procedure may be useful.  However when there are considerable highs and extreme lows: "a spiky profile", (as there often are with a bright student with dyslexia) then any averaging out discards information whose absence can then give a false picture. (If a student's left leg was one inch shorter than the norm, while his right one was an inch too long, then on average both his legs would be fine.  Nevertheless he would have a bad limp!)

"Intelligent" assessment
What is far more useful when variance in scores is high, is to consider the pattern of strengths and weaknesses. At the most crude level, verbal abilities can be compared with non verbal abilities.  Good verbal abilities with poor performance skills may suggest dyspraxia and further assessment from an Occupational Therapist may be appropriate.  Poor verbal abilities with good performance skills may point towards hearing and/or speech problems.
More specifically, I have seen patterns that suggest deficiencies in the abilities that I believe,  underpin the development of literacy skills. It is the identification of relative strengths and weakness (and the disparity between the two)  that define a dyslexia assessment.

Patterns of strengths and weaknesses begin to suggest approaches to improving literacy skills that can then be geared to developing truly individual education programmes.  Strategies that harness the identified strengths can be encouraged whilst avoiding directions which would rely on a deficient skill.   Not all students with dyslexia have the same specific deficits. Some students have short term auditory working memory problems: others have visual motor processing difficulties or poor visual spatial awareness, and some students have all three!  Programmes of improving underlying specific weaknesses through games and daily activities may be formulated, but it must be remembered that the student will find this difficult, especially as he becomes older.

Usefulness of Dyslexia Assessment (1)
My number one aim in dyslexia assessment for a student,  is to improve his self esteem by showing him that he is not "thick and stupid" as he perceives himself.  With the bright student, I involve him in the scoring up of the subtests.  We convert his actual "raw score" to "test age" equivalence.  This means showing a 12 year boy who has a spelling age of 8 years (which he already knew) that his powers of cognitive reasoning are above the range of my materials: more than 16 years 10 months.  The "in student " effect is often dramatic in relation to the extent that his self esteem and self confidence instantly increase.
I have also seen a father view his son in a new light. The father was convinced that the boy was an idle good-for-nothing teenager (which might really still be true!) in relation to not doing his written, work sheet bound homework.  He  was amazed to see the boy's level of comprehension when the questions were read to him, move from 2 years below his chronological age to 1 year above!

The dyslexic student and I then agree that he has a problem with literacy that needs to be dealt with but we put it in the perspective that he is verbally,  likely to be one of the brightest boys in the school.  We talk about the specificity of his problem and compare this with others who are tone deaf, or colour blind and conclude that once he has his master's degree, a secretary will deal with the literacy required to implement his board level decisions!

Usefulness of Dyslexia Assessment (2)
However at a more prosaic level, dyslexia assessment may provide the student's school with information about his pattern of abilities and may remind the staff of their duty of care to meet his needs.  While I expect a more able student to be reading far ahead of his chronological age, this is seldom the view of a Local Education Authority or Examination Board who usually measure any deficit against the norm.  If the need is very significant, a Statement of Special Needs may be forthcoming.  More realistically, examination boards accept that a student who has a "positive" official dyslexia assessment by a chartered  educational psychologist should not be unfairly disadvantaged and in some circumstances they may allow extra time (access arrangements), use of a laptop computer and in the most extreme situations, an amanuensis (an adult reader of questions and writer of answers).

Dyslexia is a demonstrable condition which if undiagnosed, can blight children's lives in terms of self esteem and examination results.
Intelligent assessment and early identification of dyslexia can inform and guide programmes of help to improve literacy skills.
An "officially recognised" assessment and diagnosis of dyslexia can facilitate "equal opportunity" conditions for formal examinations: a level playing field on which the student can display their knowledge of the curriculum without hindrance from a communication system (literacy) with which they are at odds

These are my personal opinions which
reflect my experience of  45 years in education
including the last 31 years of practising as an educational psychologist.

Ged Balmer
Cert. Ed., BSc.(Hons), MSc.,
C. Psychol., AFBPsS.


Chartered Educational Psychologist Health Professions Council - Practitioner Psychologist

British Psychological Society No: 34097 Registration Number PYL02195


2017 All rights reserved

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